Airborne to Chairborne
(Flying Officer M P Anil Kumar is the personification of an indomitable fighting spirit. Kumar, an alumnus of the National Defence Academy who was adjudged the best Air Force cadet of the 65th Course, had gone on to become an ace fighter pilot. But his brilliant flying career was cut short in a freak road accident when he severely injured his spine, losing complete mobility below the neck. Kumar taught himself to write initially by holding a pen with his teeth and subsequently on a computer using a specially-modified keyboard holding a stylus in his mouth. A prolific writer, his life story "Airborne to Chairborne" is part of the tenth standard syllabus in Maharashtra and Kerala.)
All my attempts to move my limbs were futile. The pain in the neck was excruciating and it intensified by the second. I was stumped for a moment but quickly recovered to realise the seriousness and significance of my inability to get up. I do not remember whether I screamed involuntarily, then, in sheer desperation. On that abominable night, my mind was in a medley of intense frustration, utmost dejection and extreme disappointment. For some timeless moments, I wished I were dead.
On 28 June '88, at around 2300 hrs, whilst returning to the Officers Mess on my motorcycle after night flying, I drove onto a road barrier just ahead of the technical area gate, inside Air Force Station, Pathankot. The impact of the helmet on the wooden bar wrenched my neck and broke the cervical spine. Fifteen minutes after the accident, I was taken to the Station Sick Quarters in an unconscious state. While being carried, my head was left unsupported. The base of the helmet (rear side) which was resting against the nape of the neck pushed the fractured vertebrae into the cervical spinal cord. (The casualty must always be carried in a stretcher, after immobilising his/her neck with a cervical collar.) The resultant spinal injury completely paralysed me below the neck.
After overnight's stay in Military Hospital (MH), Pathankot, I was transferred to Army Hospital, Delhi (AHDC). Neck surgery failed to mitigate my predicament. Though I had brief spells of consciousness during the fortnight's hospitalisation in AHDC, my memory fails to recollect my fight for survival. On 12 July '88, I was transferred to the Spinal Cord Injury Centre of MH Kirkee, Pune.
Two weeks after my admission, I gathered my wits and eagerly inquired about the prognosis. The medical officer looked up and motioned his hands skywards; perhaps he wanted me to adjure divine intervention. This charade instantly deflated my hopes but it lucidly conveyed the enormity and helplessness of the incurable nature of the incapacitation. Inconsistencies of life have always bemused me but not even the wildest nightmare presaged that one day I would fall prey to such a quirk of fate. The modicum of faith I had in Providence got shattered when I failed to show even an iota of improvement.
The cervical spinal injury (quadriplegia) necessitated me to lead a totally dependent life, tethered to the bed and wheel chair. Now, I am like a man fettered for life; unable to use my hands and legs, incontinent and spoon-fed. Ironically, the most painful aspect of quadriplegia is the painlessness! It isn't mere loss of tactile inputs and outputs but absolute dependence on someone else to accomplish mundane necessities and domestic chores that yoked me; even for things like swabbing ears and swatting flies.
Disuse atrophy had set in within a couple of months and took its toll by altering the geometry of my torso and limbs. The mirror replicated the image of a human skeleton swathed in a layer of wizened skin. Two years' stay in MH Kirkee taught me how to battle the numerous encumbrances and how to conquer the bouts of depression. With a smile on my face, I managed to dissemble the pangs of the heart. The Indian Air Force (IAF) realised my uselessness and discharged me from the service on 12 April '90. The silly accident dealt coup de grace to my aspirations and terminated my fledgling career in the IAF. In August '90, at the young age of 26, I got admitted in Paraplegic Home, Park Road, Kirkee, Pune, as an inmate to begin the second phase of my life - afresh.
I was born and brought up in a village by name Chirayinkil, 35 kms north of Trivandrum. At the age of nine, I entered Sainik School, Kazhakootam. A slow learner and an unobtrusive student by nature, I had excelled consistently in both academics and sports. Later on, I was found worthy enough to be adjudged as the best Air Force cadet of 65th course of National Defence Academy (NDA), Khadakwasla, Pune and as the best in aerobatics of 134th Pilots Course of Air Force Academy, Secunderabad. In Dec '84, I was commissioned into the IAF as a fighter pilot. I had 700 hours of flying experience (including 500 hours of flying in a magnificent flying machine called MiG-21) during my truncated career in the IAF.
All my efforts to rationalise personal catastrophes have always mystified and at times stupefied me. To adapt to the new challenges posed by the debility, I had to unshackle myself from the self-imposed stupor. Therefore, in Sep '90, I decided to learn the art of writing by holding a pen in my mouth (because of dysfunctional hands). I began scribbling illegibly but was chagrined to find little progress even after 3 weeks' laborious efforts. Then, I decided to change tactic and wrote a letter to Sheela George, the person who kept on chivvying to start mouth-writing (earlier I had paid little attention to her exhortations). My joy knew no bounds when I completed the few lines that embodied my first mouth-written letter. Initially, I found my hard work to be a mere pie in the sky; but, 4 to 5 months' assiduous efforts resulted in attaining a readable style of writing. This modest achievement enabled me in reviving the chain of correspondence and begetting new friends.
In May 1991, I was presented with an electrically operated wheel chair, with chin controls for manoeuvring, thanks to the benevolence of the IAF. Motorised mobility, though only a poor substitute for natural one, has enlivened my lifestyle considerably.
It was Wing Commander PI Murlidharan, my former flight commander, who mooted the use of a personal computer (PC), as a writing tool. He added that it would assist me to utilise my mental faculty to the hilt. Hitherto unsuccessful attempts in procuring a keyboard (modified to suit my requirements) have somewhat emasculated my resolve. Nonetheless, my hope of acquiring a PC remains undiminished.
In the meantime, I toyed with the idea of teaching. For some untenable reasons, I kept on declining the offers by bringing one imaginary reason or another as an ad hoc excuse. Aforesaid setbacks notwithstanding, I'm very hopeful of converting the second phase of my life into something as meaningful as the one I would have had from the confines of a cockpit.
Believe it or not, every dark cloud has a silver lining. To surmount even seemingly insuperable obstacles, one has to muster the remnant faculties and shun the thought of disability and then canalise one's dormant energies purposefully and whole-heartedly. It isn't just physical ability and average intelligence but an insatiable appetite for success and an unflagging will power that would texture the warp and woof of the fabric called human destiny. Greater the difficulty, sweeter the victory.